In our RV travels, Guy and I often “go in search of something,” such as presidential libraries, famous authors’ birthplaces and historic trails. This time we decided to visit Montgomery, Alabama, where slavery was once the law of the land, and which would be named Alabama’s fifth capital city 100 years later. We pointed our RV toward Montgomery, where the Civil Rights Movement began, and then on to Birmingham to see some of the important sites of the Civil Rights Movement and to better understand the courage of those who took part changed the country.
Our visit began at the Greek-Revival-style Capitol (completed in 1850 after a fire destroyed its 1847 predecessor, and now a National Historic Landmark) with a walk up the six tiers of marble steps to the polished brass star we’d read about. Just inside the six-column portico, it marks the spot where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as President of the Confederate States of America in 1861. A heroic bronze statue of Davis, the states of the Confederacy carved into its granite base, stands on the lawn looking west over Dexter Avenue.
A little more than a century after Davis took office, in 1965, the star marked the destination of the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March in which 25,000 local marchers and supporters from elsewhere took part to protest discrimination in voting practices. They filled Dexter Avenue all the way to Dr. Martin Luther King’s former church, now Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, a long block west. Miriam Norris, tour manager of the church, said later that it was only the church’s proximity to the Capitol that saved it from being bombed, when in the 1950s and 60s, during the Civil Rights Movement, many other Montgomery and Birmingham churches with African-American congregations were not so fortunate.
Standing on the Capitol steps following the 54-mile march, Dr. King gave an impassioned speech, telling the crowd, “Segregation is on its deathbed.” That same year, congress passed the Voting Rights Act, outlawing disenfranchisement “on account of race or color.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. was just 24 years old when he preached his first sermon at the red-brick church in 1954, soon after marrying Coretta Scott, his college sweetheart. Second Colored Baptist Church had been organized in 1877, and the first worship service was held here eight years later. It was just the second African-American church in Montgomery.
The name was later changed to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and again to its current name in 1968 after King’s assassination. He would be senior pastor here for six years. It was the only church he served in that capacity, said Norris, whose mother, Althea Thomas, the church organist, was hired by King in 1955.
Visitors to the church today watch an 18-minute video titled “120 Years of Service” in the fellowship hall. One wall of the room is colorfully decorated with a 50-foot by 8-foot mural depicting Civil Rights themes and quotes from King’s speeches, including “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” “We shall overcome,” “Free at last” and many others.
The church was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974 “because of its status as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement,” said Norris. It was here that King and other NAACP activists “vowed a bus boycott following the arrest of Rosa Parks,” she said. Sunday services are still held at the church at 10:30 am.
The year after King came to the church, 42-year-old seamstress Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a caucasian man. African-American ministers and lawyers, eager for a test case on the constitutionality of the law, recruited King to lead a boycott of city buses. His powerful rhetoric earned him the position of spokesman for the fledgling movement. And for the next 381 days some 50,000 Montgomery African Americans refused to ride the buses – until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws segregating public transportation.
Visitors can tour the interactive Troy University Rosa Parks Library and Museum, which opened in 2000 on the anniversary of her arrest. Films from the era, dozens of exhibits and artifacts tell the story of the movement, and an amazing hologram (the bus is really there) depicts Parks’ arrest.
White-frame Dexter Parsonage Museum, a modest seven-room home some distance from the church, is furnished as it was when King, his wife and children lived there. Meetings were theld here during the bus boycott – the front porch was bombed one January night in 1956 – and it was here that activists formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said museum director Shirley Cherry. A photo of Gandhi, whose teachings inspired King’s nonviolent leadership, hangs in the study.
A video at the interpretive center (formerly a boarding house) next door shows friends and acquaintances of King sharing stories. Cherry points out a white-frame house several doors south, where she says a group of Freedom Riders was sequestered in 1961.
Interpretive panels on the outside wall of the yellow-brick former Greyhound Bus Station on South Court Street tell the story of the Freedom Rides, quoting from several who took part. The rides, leader John Lewis had said, were “meant to awaken the heart of America to the injustice of its own laws and traditions.”
In segregated Montgomery they were not welcome, and when a group of 20 African-American and caucasian “Freedom Riders” traveling from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans arrived at this station on May 20, 1961, they were attacked by a mob of 200 Ku Klux Klan supporters. Although a police escort was promised, all law-enforcement personnel disappeared as the Freedom Riders entered the Montgomery city limits. The mob viciously attacked the Freedom Riders and anyone who tried to come to their aid. This shocking brutality woke up the country and led to the ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission declaring segregation in bus terminals unconstitutional.
Other Montgomery Civil Rights sites include Holt Street Baptist Church, where mass meetings led to the bus boycott; the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture, which interprets the movement; City of St. Jude, the last campsite along the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March; and the Civil Rights Memorial Center, which honors 40 “martyrs” who died in the quest for equality, from 1954 to ’68, and chronicles important events during those years.
Meanwhile, similar events were taking place 90 miles north in Birmingham, “the city of trees,” our next stop. There we met Vickie Ashford of the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau who introduced us to local history teacher/guide Barry McNealy. For the next two days he led us on a Milestones Walking Tour of the city (we also drove, as the tour covered many miles).
He explained that at the time the Civil Rights Movement began, Birmingham was the South’s largest industrial center and considered the worst in race relations (by no coincidence, we learned later, as refusing African-Americans equality in the workplace helped maintain a large, cheap labor force).
African-Americans who complained about discrimination were harassed, even beaten by gangs often linked to the police, said McNealy. There were demonstrations led by Dr. King and other activists, but they were quelled by police with dogs and fire hoses. Finally, when caucasian-owned stores were suffering economically, city leaders agreed to end discrimination.
Six months after King’s “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed and four young African-American girls were killed. By now many caucasians also wanted the brutality directed at African Americans to end (though it was only years later that Bob Chambliss, Thomas Blanden and Frank Cherry were convicted of the bombing). Some 50 unsolved racially directed bombings between the late 1940s and mid-’60s led the city to be dubbed “Bombingham,” said McNealy.
As caucasians moved to the suburbs, African-Americans gained a larger say in local government, and in 1979 elected Birmingham’s first African-American mayor, Richard Arrington Jr. He came up with the idea of honoring civil rights “soldiers” by turning former war zones into shrines. With McNealy leading the way, we visited many of them.
At 130-year-old Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (church that suffered the deadliest moment in the history of civil rights), we were greeted by church clerk Tara Walton. She explained that just days after Birmingham schools were court-ordered to integrate, on September 15, 1963, Klan members bombed the 790-member church, killing Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carol Robertson, all 14 years old, and Denise McNair, 11, while injuring 22 others and “turning the church into one of America’s most sacred shrines of freedom.” She added that “the tragedy forced the city and nation to examine the consequences of discrimination.”
A 35-minute video shown at the imposing yellow-brick church, originally called First Colored Baptist Church, recounts the event and aftermath. A first-rate museum on the lower level explains how the bombing “forged the movement for political, social and economic justice.”
Our next stop was nearby four-acre Kelly Ingram Park, named for the first Alabamian killed in World War I, and a “place of revolution and reconciliation,” said McNealy. There are pathways, flower gardens, trees and a Freedom Walk unveiled by former Mayor Larry P. Langford in 2009. The trail includes a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. (since he has always seemed so larger-than-life, we were surprised to learn he stood just 5 feet 5 inches tall), and other figures depicting events from Birmingham’s Civil Rights struggles.
One of the finest museums anywhere, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute – a $50 million, 58,000-square-foot facility that opened in 1992 – is across the street from the park. Hundreds of photos and films, audio recordings, and other exhibits – including the cell where King wrote his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and a section of the letter – interpret the movement, the bloodshed, humiliation, horror and amazing courage of those who took part.
Some 60 churches make up Birmingham’s “Civil Rights Churches,” but of particular importance is 1926 Bethel Baptist, which served as a “staging ground” for civil-rights activities, and was headquarters for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (1956-61), which advocated nonviolent protest against racial discrimination. Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth was the president of this Movement and also pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church, which was bombed three times.
Our visit to Birmingham ended at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, where we were greeted by Frank “Doc” Adams, a delightful man full of stories from a long musical career. Doc, as he likes to be called, says he was born on Ground Hog’s Day in 1928, took up the clarinet at a young age and began playing professionally at age 16 with Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Orchestra. Two decades later Doc was touring the country, performing with Duke Ellington “who rode in a stretch limo, wore iridescent suits and wanted me to make my clarinet sound like Tweety Bird,” he said, grinning, clarinet in hand.
The Art Deco museum (pink walls and lots of neon), where Doc is director of education, is a tribute to jazz greats with ties to Alabama, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Erskine Hawkins, W.C. Handy, Sun Ra and many others, he said. Jazz, he explained, is “like gumbo, a stew of contributions from a lot of musicians.” After entertaining us for an hour with dozens of fascinating stories, Doc put the clarinet to his lips, leaned forward and burst into the wailing glissando that begins George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Montgomery Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 240-9452, www.visiting
Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 458-8085, www.inbirmingham.org.
Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, (205) 254-2731, www.jazzhall.com.